From start-up to world-class in 12 years: meet WA distiller Cameron Syme

Lawyer turned whisky distiller Cameron Syme pioneered the whisky-making industry in Western Australia when he launched his business more than 10 years ago. His goal? To make the best single malt in the whole world.

By

When West Australian lawyer and whisky-lover Cameron Syme decided to take his life savings and establish the state’s first whisky distillery, he had a big dream – to produce the world’s finest single malt whisky.

And just 12 years after distilling his first whisky, Syme and his Great Southern Distilling Company are taking on the world’s best. Last year, the company’s flagship single malt brand Limeburners was established as one of the finest in the world, having been named best international craft whisky at the American Distilling Institute’s annual spirits awards.

“My mission in my original business plan was to build a world-class spirits company that could compete at the highest international levels, to make the world’s best whisky,” Syme explains.

“I wouldn’t say we’re quite there yet, but we’re getting close. In a short time we’ve been able to punch above our weight and compete at those levels.”

Whisky in the blood

Syme’s whisky passion began as a young man, with an early preference for spirits over beer. But it really took off when his father started regaling family stories of past generations in Scotland who were illegal distillers.

When local authorities offered a reward for dobbing
in a distiller, Syme’s canny forebears reported their own location and then used the reward money for an upgrade.

“I felt there was a connection with the Australian larrikin attitude,” Syme recalls. “I thought, ‘Wow my family were making whisky way back then, maybe I could do the same’. I already loved whisky but that planted the business idea.

“WA has some of the world’s best grain, a fantastic climate and very good quality water – they’re the key ingredients for whisky-making. I could see a huge niche opportunity in the market that nobody else was taking advantage of.”

Biting the bullet

While working as a lawyer for a major oil and gas company in the UK, Syme grabbed every opportunity to head to Scotland to visit the best distilleries and research whisky and the whisky business. At home, he spent time in Tasmania working with innovators like Bill Lark – the ‘Godfather of Tasmanian whisky’ – who were winning acclaim for their whiskies.

After 16 years researching and becoming a qualified distiller, Syme decided to “bite the bullet”. He zeroed in on Albany as WA’s perfect place with the elements needed to create quality whisky.

“The world’s best whiskies are made in iconic locations,” he says. “I trawled south-west WA and Albany stood
head and shoulders above the rest – a nice, cool, marine climate, access to very good quality water for brewing and just a phenomenally beautiful spot.”

The business operated for its first two years out of
an Albany business incubator premises, where Syme distilled his first whisky before setting up his current distillery on the edge of Princess Royal Harbour. That first whisky was bottled in 2008 and shortly afterwards won a bronze medal at the London International Wine and Spirits competition.

And the awards kept coming.

“That was a big relief, winning that first award,” Syme says. “It was that third-party endorsement that we were creating something really good.”

More high spirits

The challenge of cash flow in the early days also led Syme to enter the gin business, establishing WA’s first gin distillery.

“Gin was our first product into a bottle,” he explains. “Gin’s quick to make – it takes around two weeks – whereas single malt whisky is a minimum of two years (but really five to eight years). It was easier for us to produce cash flow with gin.”

Since then, interest in artisan gins has grown exponentially (much like whisky) and gin remains a key part of the Great Southern Distilling Company business. It even began a new venture – the gin-dedicated Margaret River Distilling Company – in 2015. Both are open to the public and welcomed more than 100,000 visitors last year.

Syme has also added a third prong to the business
– a distillery dedicated to blended grain, sour mash whisky (known as bourbon in the US) near Albany in the Porongurups, the world’s oldest mountain range. It began full production in January.

Just scratching the surface

The Syme family has a long-time relationship with NAB. “My family are farmers – I grew up on the family farm in Buntine in the WA wheat belt – and my family have banked with NAB since the 1920s,” Syme says.

“[NAB] have been with me all the way, willing to think outside the square and take the journey with me. It’s a tough economic business to launch into but NAB supported us.”

Today the business produces four barrels of Limeburners whisky a week but is soon increasing to about 12 barrels. “That makes us still very small in terms of production – the average Scottish distillery is about 350 barrels a week,” Syme says.

The opportunity for growth, however, is huge, both in export and domestically.

“We’re turning over $6 million in revenue a year now and would like to be at $60m within five to 10 years. We’re just scratching the surface with exports at the moment, and there’s phenomenal growth potential in the Australian market as well.”

 

This article was first published in Business View magazine (Issue 25).